Rev. Sekou Brings the Revolution to Vermont | Music Feature | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

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Rev. Sekou Brings the Revolution to Vermont

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Published August 11, 2021 at 10:00 a.m.
Updated August 13, 2021 at 12:02 p.m.


Rev. Sekou - COURTESY OF REV. SEKOU
  • Courtesy Of Rev. Sekou
  • Rev. Sekou

Internet culture has latched on to a particular line from Walt Whitman's "Song of Myself" in recent years. Everyone from Lana Del Ray to comedian Aparna Nancherla has parroted the oft-used phrase "I contain multitudes" in relation to the complexity of the human experience. Another line from that poem comes to mind after conversing with Rev. Osagyefo Uhuru Sekou, one that's more apt to the life of a man who radiates self-love and selflessness.

"I Celebrate myself, and sing myself, / And what I assume you shall assume," Whitman wrote in 1855. "For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you." It is a stark declaration, an ode to humanity.

In his way, Rev. Sekou has crafted a similar statement to Whitman's but across multiple forms of media. The activist, theologian, author, filmmaker and musician wears many hats. In aggregate, his work forms a massive gesture, an outreach and demand for unity and equal rights for all.

From serving as a visiting scholar at Stanford University's Martin Luther King Education and Research Institute to being arrested in Ferguson, Mo., in 2015 protesting the police killing of Michael Brown, Sekou is a man on a mission. As he tells Seven Days, though, "I'll take a good concert over a political rally any day."

Music is his true joy. Rev. Sekou has released two critically acclaimed studio records: 2016's The Revolution Has Come and In Times Like These in 2017. Both records leaned heavily into Sekou's blues roots. His grandfather, Richard Braselman, played with blues legends B.B. King, Albert King and Louis Jordan. He's now working on a new LP, tentatively titled Fish Grease.

Rev. Sekou and his band the Freedom Fighters make two stops in Vermont this week: Thursday, August 12, at the Putney Inn via the Next Stage Arts Project, and Sunday, August 15, at Catamount Arts' Levitt AMP St. Johnsbury Music Series at Dog Mountain. Rev. Sekou recently spoke with Seven Days by phone from his home in Seattle, Wash.

SEVEN DAYS: Welcome back to touring life! How are you feeling about getting back on the road?

REV. SEKOU: It's been a while since I've performed, so I'm excited. We did an online gig back in April at UC San Diego, but you know it's not really the same thing. It'll be fun, getting back in that saddle.

SD: You're playing some rather out-of-the way spots in Vermont.

RS: I can't wait. We'll be good and warmed up by Vermont. We played up there in 2019 and, let me tell you, from the first note to the last, they came to party. So, we're going to bring some oil with us, because there ain't a lot up there! [Laughs]

SD: I'm just so white. Run me through what you mean by "oil."

RS: Ha ha! It's how I describe my music. Coming out of a Pentecostal parlance, one would say, "Does it have oil?" Which is to say, is it anointed? But it's also about a particular kind of sound. It's got to be oily or greasy. Memphis is a funky, greasy sound, and the new record is going to have that Memphis sound. Nashville is sort of the opposite of that; they push the organ back in the mix and strip out the Blackness.

SD: Is that a goal you have with your music? To push back against that?

RS: What we're trying to do is create a sound that's a critique of an industry that has filed off the edges of Black radical music. My music is a little on the chin, politically, but I'm also talking about sonic quality. I feel like if you listen to my catalog, you're going to get a blend of funk, gospel, soul and blues. A little rock, too. So, what we are attempting is to take people through the richness of the Black musical tradition, which is the greatest musical tradition in the history of the world.

SD: Does that feel like an uphill struggle sometimes? Or is it a feature of your music and part of the process?

RS: I play what I play because that's what's inside of me, and that's not unique. I turned 50 this year, so I don't have time for that killjoy stuff; I got more days behind me than I have in front of me. I get joy from playing and, honestly, I forget people are out there sometimes. So, if I'm playing in front of an all-white audience, they're still humans who need joy, and it's a gift for me to be able to share that joy.

I don't try to do a lot of preaching from the stage; I let the music do the work. And there's a lot of folks who love Black culture but hate Black people. I'm from Arkansas, man. There's places in the South where you'll see white people listening to DMX with a rebel flag on their car.

SD: Can music help overcome that? Do you feel putting out songs so entrenched in Black culture can educate the same people losing their shit about statues of famous racists being torn down?

RS: Look, I've definitely played shows where some good ol' boys came up to me afterwards and said, "You've changed my thinking." And that's great. But sometimes I think we can overstate the capacity of art to change [people's] eyes without political movement. There has to be a combination.

To be honest, I don't give a fuck about them goddamned statues. I understand they're forms of symbolic terror that mirror the actual terror from when they were built. But I'm far more interested in universal health care and defunding the police, so that we have more counselors in schools than cops.

I'm interested in a world where poor white folks won't accept abuse from elites because they gain the psychological wages of whiteness. I want to live in a world where poor whites understand that Donald Trump does not love them. That there's a possibility of a world not predicated on the demonization of other people.

I'm far more interested in that than I am with statues. But they should still come down.

SD: Are these the sorts of thoughts in your head when writing music? Does your political passion inform the way you make a song?

RS: I've heard about these things, "writing rooms," where people go and sit in the quiet until they write something. That's not how it works for me. The song has got to come see me. Sometimes they give me the whole thing; sometimes it's just a piece. But that song has to come talk to me first.

A lot of this new record, we wrote it onstage, during rehearsals on tour. We'll be playing something, and I might say, "Sit in it," so we can write. "Loving You Is Killing Me," on my last album, is probably the best song I've ever written. I wrote it with Charles Hodges, who played on all of Al Green's records. I woke up humming the tune. We had that song written in 20 minutes! So, you never know how it's going to work.

SD: Will we hear some of the new material on this tour?

RS: Oh, absolutely. It's going to be greasy, man. The new stuff is a little bit funkier — I finally figured out what my sound is. It's going to be like the fish fry weekends my grandfather would host. He'd roll out a piano and play while the fish fried. That's kind of what we do. Our shows are one part juke joint, one part political protest and one part Sunday morning service.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.

The original print version of this article was headlined "Cooking With Oil | Activist and musician Rev. Sekou brings his fiery brand of music to Vermont"